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27 September 2012
There are many claims made for the health benefits of alcohol. Given the popularity of alcohol as a social lubricant it is no surprise that any new study reporting even the faintest suggestion that alcohol might be good for you is seized upon by media and individuals alike. Let’s start by saying that any alcoholic drink is only good for you if consumed in moderation and that means around one to two standard drinks a day maximum. Having said that, a new study has shown that at least as far as heart health goes a glass of red wine is better for you than a glass of vodka.
To investigate the different effects of the two alcoholic beverages researchers used pigs who had high cholesterol levels. These pigs were divided into three groups; one had no intervention, one had a daily dose of red wine, and the third had a daily dose of vodka. The amount of actual alcohol in the red wine and vodka groups was equal.
After seven weeks both groups of pigs receiving alcohol were experiencing advantages. In both of these groups good HDL cholesterol levels increased while overall cholesterol levels remained unchanged. Vodka was found to cause the growth of new blood vessels in the heart while red wine caused existing blood vessels to expand (dilate) which makes blood flow easier. The net result though was that red wine led to a greater increase in blood flow to the heart.
We know that grapes contain polyphenols that have an antioxidant effect including a substance known as resveratrol which has been shown to have heart protective effects. These polyphenols survive into wine and non-alcoholic grape drinks.
In this study it was a pinot noir that was used and it seems clear that the pigs benefitted more from sitting down to a quiet red and a discussion the economic climate than they did from snorting down a shot of vodka in a night club.
This all suggests that it is not the alcohol itself, or at least not the alcohol alone, that is yielding the benefits. So the parent ingredient (ie the grapes of wine) is the thing that offers the healthy components. In humans it just may be that there is also something to the communal conviviality and relaxation that usually accompanies moderate alcohol intake that is good for you. Whatever the cause, the next time you are offered a social drink your answer should probably be, “Wine not!”.